06/24/2024

Some Crim

Track the Untold Stories

Was the Real-Life Prototype for Ian Fleming’s Bond a Triple Agent?

Was the Real-Life Prototype for Ian Fleming’s Bond a Triple Agent?

One day in July 2021, while failing to read yet another book during Australia’s never-ending COVID-19 lockdown— nothing much was grabbing me—I got a text message from Fred. It was short and intriguing: ‘Jess, have you heard of Dick Ellis? Look him up.’

Dad, then 74, had read a line in one of the paperbacks he’d bought at a local bookstore, that mentioned an Australian-born colonel, Charles Howard “Dick” Ellis, who’d worked at a very senior level for the intelligence services of the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. Ellis had been born into impoverished circumstances in the suburb of Annandale, in Sydney, Australia. Annandale today is a well-heeled neighborhood where not a hell of a lot goes on other than dogs being walked. Its streets are uncommonly wide for Sydney, and its Federation houses are largely preserved. It seemed strange that after living in the area for a couple of decades between us, neither Dad nor I  had even heard mention of  Dick Ellis. Who was he? As a nonfiction writer and biographer always on the lookout for new book ideas, I was immediately interested.

One American newspaper called Ellis “Britain’s number-three spy at the end of World War II.” Brian Toohey and William Pinwill, co-authors of Oyster: The Story of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, described him as “the most intriguing figure who has crossed the often-surprising landscape of Australian intelligence.”  Fellow spy-writing duo Desmond Ball and David Horner called him “one of the most shadowy figures of all.”

The doyen of espionage nonfiction, the late Phillip Knightley, saw in Ellis the prototype for 007: “His adventures not only rival those of James Bond; he was James Bond.” Knightley claimed Ian Fleming had based the character of Bond on a mix of Ellis, ‘one of the most remarkable secret service agents in the history of espionage’, and the legendary Serbian double agent and ladies’ man Duško Popov. American journalist C. L. Sulzberger, who met Ellis in the 1960s, wrote that the Australian had “gained a reputation as tough, ruthless and brilliant. In World War II he was a big shot in intelligence.’ Ellis has also been called “the Grand Old Man of British espionage … the oldest living professional agent.”

Beyond the praise and hyperbole, Ellis—a university dropout—was certainly an accomplished individual: classical musician, scholar, journalist, author, historian, diplomat, consul, polyglot (he spoke, French, German, Urdu, Farsi, Turkish, and some Mandarin, and is credited with a passing knowledge of other languages, including Italian and Spanish), respected intelligence officer, Cold War warrior, and decorated soldier who saw battle in France and Belgium (where he served on the Western Front), British India, Egypt, Afghanistan, Persia, Transcaspia (modern-day Turkmenistan), southern Russia and the Caucasus.

Ellis collected a swag of medals and honors including the US Legion of Merit, an OBE (Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire), CBE (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire), and CMG (Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George). He had been present at or involved behind the scenes in some of the biggest conflicts and events of the 20th century (World War I, the Russian Civil War, World War II, the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency and Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, the Vladimir Petrov affair, Kim Philby’s defection to the Soviet Union), was friends with or worked with some of the most fascinating people of the century (Roald Dahl, Ian Fleming, Noël Coward, Reginald Teague-Jones, Duško Popov, J. Edgar Hoover, William Donovan, H. G. Wells, Stewart Menzies, William Stephenson), and whose personal narrative involves four undisputed titans of World War II (Franklin D. Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, and Winston Churchill). Ellis’s journey was quite staggering in its richness of experiences and people encountered.

But much more sensationally, after he died in 1975 the ruddy-cheeked Ellis, drily described by CIA historian Thomas F. Troy as “short (5’5” in his prime), slightly rounded, white-haired, properperson”, was publicly accused of being a traitor. Not just any garden-variety traitor, either: a triple agent who in the 1960s had secretly confessed to his treasonous crimes. It was grave stuff.

According to Troy, Dick Ellis was “widely believed to have been both a Nazi and a Soviet agent.” British espionage journalist and author Henry (‘Harry’) Chapman Pincher, who went by the abridged name Chapman Pincher, wrote in 1981 that Ellis had been the beneficiary of ‘the most blatant cover-up and ‘broke down after interrogation in1965 and confessed to having spied for Germany before and during the early stages of the war. This would have been a capital offence (sic) in wartime.’

Pincher passed away in 2014, aged 100. He went to his deathbed maintaining Ellis was guilty, his case against the man an encapsulation of the old idiom “there’s no smoke without fire.” Ironically, though, Brigadier Denis Blomfield-Smith observed that Pincher himself was a perfect candidate for a Soviet mole. (Over his writing career, Pincher certainly accused a good many people of being Soviet agents, mostly with scant foundation.)

Adding to all this intrigue, one of the legendary “Cambridge Five” of British traitors, Anthony Blunt, had ‘inferred [sic] during his 1964 confession’ that there was a “link between [Kim] Philby and Ellis”, a matter that would have ramifications for Ellis when he was interrogated in London the following year. Blunt, however, never actually named Ellis, and was publicly outed as a traitor in the House of Commons by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on November 15, 1979.  This was despite a deal that, in exchange for his confession, he was assured he would not be exposed. Blunt reportedly said before he died in 1983, “It’s amusing to see the security services spinning round like mad dogs chewing their own tails.”

Kim Philby, who became a Russian spy in 1934, joined the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6) in 1940 and crossed over to the Soviet Union in 1963, was the most notorious traitor of all time. The mere mention of his name has become a synonym for betrayal and spawned dozens of books. Phillip Knightley, who interviewed Philby at his home in Moscow before Philby’s death aged 76 in 1988, called him “the most remarkable spy in the history of espionage …the most successful penetration agent ever … professionally, as a spy, he is in a class all by himself.”

Could Ellis, this unassuming, almost anonymous Australian, have been his secret accomplice?

Could Ellis, this unassuming, almost anonymous Australian, have been his secret accomplice? Philby never gave any indication during his exile in the Soviet Union the pair had worked in tandem, yet they knew each other well, and served on an MI6 reorganization committee together after World War II. No mention is made of Ellis in Philby’s1968 autobiography, My Silent War, but Ellis was still alive at the time and no allegations of treason against him had yet to surface in the public domain. Ellis was even considered a possible candidate for the infamous Soviet mole ELLI, whose codename was first mentioned in the 1940s but has never been positively and conclusively identified,despite claims to the contrary.

So how has Dick Ellis, such a huge figure in the history of Western espionage, practically been forgotten? It’s rotten enough betraying your country for an enemy state – but to do so for the two most evil empires of the 20th century, fascist Nazi Germany and the communist Soviet Union? It puts you in a category all of your own. Ellis potentially was a bigger traitor than Philby and the FBI’s Robert Hanssen, who in 2001 was caught spying for the Russians.

Ellis would be widely talked of as being “a spy for both Hitler and Stalin,” though that is preposterous: he didn’t meet either the German or Russian dictator and is not known to have had contact directly with them or any of their subordinates. Both men, however, feature indirectly in his story. Available sources show that Ellis flatly denied ever being a Soviet mole. It seems though that reports of his alleged connections to the Nazis warrant closer examination.

Let me be plain. Even if Ellis had been simply feeding “chicken-feed’, or low-value information, to the Third Reich before World War II under orders from MI6 superiors—or out of penury: by many accounts Britain didn’t pay its secret agents enough as well as give them enough money to pay other agents—the charge that he in any way worked for Nazi Germany is deeply shocking. We’re talking about Nazis, after all: history’s greatest villains and Hollywood’s go-to personification of badness.

Indeed, cast as a Nazi agent, Ellis’s name has been publicly connected to a catalog of betrayals: revealing MI6’s bugging of the German Embassy in London; 1939’s notorious Venlo Incident in the Netherlands (where two British agents were kidnapped by the Nazis on the Dutch-German border); being the source for Waffen-SS Major General Walter Schellenberg’s infamous arrest list prepared before the Battle of Britain, Sonderfahndungsliste G. B. (‘Special Wanted List Great Britain’, popularly called ‘The Black Book’), and its accompanying SS handbook Informationsheft G. B.(‘Information Brochure Great Britain’); and feeding intelligence to Adolf Hitler’snumber two, Martin Bormann.  It’s as bad as it gets.

It has been alleged that Ellis “sold vast quantities of information to the Germans” before the invasion. Pincher insinuated Ellis was responsible for the wartime killing of English actor Leslie Howard: the plane he was traveling in from Lisbon to Bristol was shot out of the sky off the coast of northern Spain by the Luftwaffe. Ellis has even been linked to the attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii in 1941. In the 1980s there was no end to Axis-collaboration accusations made against Ellis; but most—and this is an important qualification—had little to no substance at all. How much actual evidence was needed to make a convincing case that the boy from Annandale had been up to no good? Or didn’t proof matter anymore?

The MI5 intelligence officer Peter Wright, who died in 1995 at age 78, was in the interrogation room with Ellis when he allegedly confessed; Wright subsequently gave Pincher the inside scoop the latter needed for his books demonizing Ellis (1981’s Their Trade is Treachery and 1984’s Too Secret Too Long).

Wright wrote the following in his own book, the 1987 global best-seller Spycatcher: “Ellis was a venal, sly man. He sat there, stripped of his rank, white-faced and puffy. But never once did I hear an apology. I could understand how a man might choose the Soviets through ideological conviction. But to sell colleagues out to the Germans for a few pounds in time of war? I told him that had he been caught in 1939–40 he would have been hanged.”

Ellis’s life appeared to be an incredible, untold tale; it was astonishing that no biographer before me had attempted to write a proper book on this enigmatic individual (Phillip Knightley, to his credit, had tried to get a film made about Ellis but it never materialized). But what if, after all the relentless smearing and character assassination from the Daily Mail to Newsweek to the Washington Post, there was another explanation for Ellis’s confession? Could he have made a “false confession” and, like the soldier he was, professed guilt to protect someone else? What if he was innocent? What if there was more to the story of Pincher and Wright themselves and their motivation to “nail Ellis”?

What if there was more to the story of Pincher and Wright themselves and their motivation to ‘nail Ellis’?

Was Ellis an evil spy and a traitor of epic proportions or a hero of freedom and liberty? Four decades before the term even entered our lexicon, could he have been a posthumous victim of cancel culture, where truth doesn’t matter and an allegation is enough to condemn someone in the court of public opinion?

Like any writer of serious non-fiction worth his or her salt,I  wanted to explore these questions. I’d written challenging books before—on dead rock stars and Miami cocaine traffickers—and was used to investigating stories where people didn’t want to talk. What I didn’t realize was just how profoundly difficult it would be.

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From THE EAGLE IN THE MIRROR by Jesse Fink (Citadel/Kensington Books, May 21, 2024)